California Domestic Workers Ask for a Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Michelle Chen

At an August 21 rally, the children of California's domestic workers ask for respect for their moms.

Domestic workers such as nannies are the heroes of many households, handling everything from burping babies to making sure grandma takes her medicine. Now they’re adding another talent to their skill set: flashmobbing. A new video published by Mujeres Unidas Y Activas helps train California domestic workers to make a splash in public places with a song and dance number.

With Aretha Frankin’s Respect” as its soundtrack, it’s one of the many creative ways grassroots advocates are spotlighting the struggles of domestic workers – women who are often literally shut indoors and silenced by discriminatory labor policies.

Behind the fun street theater is a serious cause: California domestic workers are pushing for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights–a set of principles that would be enacted through state legislation to ensure security, dignity and basic protection from abuse on the job. On August 21, they rallied in Sacramento, building on a groundswell of national support for the bill, which mirrors a similar measure in New York.

These nannies, housekeepers and senior health aides represent impoverished Latino immigrant communities who are structurally relegated to the bottom rung of the labor force. As David Bacon reported earlier this year, weak labor law makes it easy for employers to exploit them with impunity.

One of the groups at the rally was El Centro Laboral de Graton/​The Graton Day Labor Center, which advocates for domestic workers as well as other workers who do not have equal protection under federal labor standards. On Tuesday, El Centro activist Maureen Purtill told In These Times via email:

We are a small day labor center in rural Sonoma County. Our members are domestic workers, farm workers and day laborers. We feel the momentum building in this campaign, and know that a victory for Domestic Workers is inevitable. Their exclusion from basic labor laws is a shameful part of the historical legacy of racism in this country, and we celebrate the amazing women who lead this historic effort with their voices, love and dedication to justice.

Purtill added that sometimes, domestic and farm workers may live together as heads of one household – illustrating the need for a global, family-centered response to attacks on labor rights across different low-wage sectors.

The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would embody a more holistic approach to labor rights. The National Domestic Workers Alliance summarizes the main demands:

  • Equal overtime pay. Currently, personal attendants are excluded from overtime rights and live-in domestic workers receive less protection under overtime laws. The CDWBR would include ALL domestic workers in California’s overtime protections of time and a half after 8 hours in one workday and 40 hours in one workweek and double time after 12 hours in one workday.
  • Equal right to worker’s compensation. Domestic workers are carved-out of California’s worker’s compensation laws when they work in private households less than 52 hours or earn less than $100 in the previous 90 days. The CDWBR would cover ALL domestic workers under California’s worker’s compensation laws.
  • Equal right to reporting time pay. … The CDWBR would extend reporting time pay rights that most California workers enjoy to personal attendants.
  • Right to 8 hours uninterrupted sleep under adequate conditions. … Domestic workers often labor around the clock placing themselves and the people they care for at risk of sickness and unintentional mistakes caused by exhaustion. The CDWBR would guarantee domestic workers at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep under adequate conditions.
  • Right to cook one’s own food. Unlike most California workers, domestic workers are often confined to the home of their employer and are forced to eat food that is unhealthy or not to their liking. The CDWBR would grant domestic workers the right to make basic decisions regarding the type of food they eat.

There’s been a long-running debate over the ethics of modern childcare, focused on the anxiety that some middle-class working mothers feel over employing nannies. Many rightly voice feminist frustration over a lack of subsidized childcare or paid maternal leave options.

But the untold side of the story is that of the workers, who have their own households to support. California’s domestic work sector is dominated by low-income women and immigrants. Economic desperation – which, in the case of undocumented workers, may be aggravated by fears of being exposed to immigration authorities – raises the pressure to keep quiet and often, to endure day-to-day abuse. Underlying the routine abuses is a lack of protections and benefits that deepens workers’ vulnerability in the informal labor market: no paid sick days, for instance, or a lack of enforceable labor contracts or collective bargaining power. The struggles of California’s nannies and housekeepers are also stitched into global patterns of informal household-based work: legions of women cross borders to earn higher wages abroad, but pay a heavy social toll of family separation and chronic instability.

Initiatives like the Bill of Rights movement seek global change on a local level, by making labor politics intimately personal. The children of California’s domestic workers have also turned out to push for the Bill of Rights, representing what’s at stake when caregivers themselves are not cared for.

There’s really no reason why these kids should have to spend any more time wondering if their moms will ever be treated fairly at work. All they’re asking for is a little respect.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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